Shakespeare in Africa

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 48

When the British came to colonize the African continent in the middle of the 1800s, they brought Shakespeare with them. But after the British left power, it was often Shakespeare who leaders in African countries summoned to push back against the colonial experience — using his words to promote unity, elevate native languages, and critique the politics of the time.
Barbara Bogaev interviews Jane Plastow, professor of African theater at the University of Leeds and co-editor of African Theatre 12: Shakespeare in and out of Africa. Also featured in this podcast episode are Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan, Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Tcho Caulker, a Sierra Leonean-American professor in the English Department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is also interviewed in another Shakespeare Unlimited episode.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © May 17, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “I Speak of Africa,” was produced by Richard Paul.  Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Thanks to Caleen Sinnette Jennings and David Schalkwyk and to Barbara Caldwell at UC-Irvine. We had help with recording from Gareth Dant at the University of Leeds, independent producer George Lavender, Ray Andrewsen at WQUN radio in Hamden, Connecticut, and Babatunde Ogunbajo at Midas Touch Studios in Ibadan, Nigeria.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called "I Speak of Africa." When the British came to colonize the African continent in the middle of the 1800s, they brought many staples of Victorian England among with them, including rigid class hierarchies, boarding schools, the Anglican Church, and Shakespeare.

These various impositions were taken up by native Africans with varying levels of emotion, shaping life in Anglophone Africa in ways the British might have imagined would last forever. They didn’t. And as we will hear, after the British left power, it was often Shakespeare who leaders in African countries summoned to push back against the colonial experience, using his words to promote unity, elevate native languages, and critique the politics of the time.

In this podcast, host Barbara Bogaev talks with Jane Plastow, professor of African theater at the University of Leeds. They’re joined in their conversation by the voices of writers and scholars from throughout Britain’s former African colonies, who helped put the continent’s long engagement with Shakespeare into perspective.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Let’s start in the present-day Shakespeare scene in Africa, with one important African writer who we interviewed for this podcast and who contributed a fascinating chapter in a book that you edited about Shakespeare in Africa. Femi Osofisan is his name. Now we’re going to play some comments from him in a bit. But first tell us who Femi Osofisan is and why he’s such a prominent figure in African literature.

JANE PLASTOW: Okay, so Femi is probably the second most famous playwright in Nigeria, which is undoubtedly the richest theatrical nation in Africa. The most prominent being, of course, Wole Soyinka. But Osofisan is slightly younger; he must be in his 60s now. And he’s been a hugely prolific playwright, and he’s written a whole lot of original plays, but one of the things he very often does, is he adapts texts either by African writers, or he’s done a number of Greek adaptations. He has a degree in French. He’s hugely, cosmopolitanly knowledgeable.

BOGAEV: And we’re going to talk about adaptation a little bit later in our conversation. But getting back to that book that you edited, in which Osofisan contributed a chapter, his was about Shakespeare productions by African troupes at the Globe to Globe Festival in London during the 2012 Olympics, and five African countries were represented at that festival. We do have some very short clips from two of them, so everyone can get the sound of the Shakespeare in their ears. Here’s a little bit of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili.

[CLIP from The Merry Wives of Windsor (Swahili), Bitter Pill of Nairobi, Kenya, Globe to Globe Festival, London, 2012]

BOGAEV: And here is A Winter’s Tale in Yoruba.

[CLIP from The Winter's Tale (Yoruba), Renegade Theatre company of Lagos, Nigeria, Globe to Globe Festival, London, 2012]

BOGAEV: Now, in his chapter in the book, one of the things Osofisan talked about was the style of acting that many of the African performers were able to do at the Globe Theatre, how the thrust stage at the Globe enabled a kind of interactive theater experience that’s more common in Africa than it is in England or the US. And we asked him to tell us more about them.

[Interview with Femi Osofisan:]

FEMI OSOFISAN: It allowed them to actually start, as they were used to, with the audience very close by and responding. If you come from a theater in Britain, where the audience is in auditorium and the actor are onstage, you know that throughout the performance, it’s almost complete dead silence, and you only have some response at the end of the show.

In Africa, in most of Africa, this is totally different. You’ll never have the audience sitting down passively, just listening, at any time. You’re singing, the audience is singing back, they’re joining the choruses, they’re responding to the proverbs, you know. I mean here, we used proverbs, and usually you only have to say half of the proverb, the audience completes the rest of it. I mean, it’s a very, very, very active kind of audience here.

BOGAEV: So Jane, is this acting style that Femi is talking about common all over Africa?

PLASTOW: Absolutely. In Africa, in most of the countries I’ve been in, it’s a much more engaged kind of experience. It’s kind of much more like it would have been in Shakespeare’s day, which is why the Globe’s so great for African performance, both because you’ve got this audience around you and you can take the play into the audience. You expect a kind of call and response. Yeah, the passive audience of the West is utterly alien to most African performance.

BOGAEV: Right. And Femi talked about that, at least regarding the Nigerian style of Shakespeare performances, that when British theater troupes come over to Africa to perform, it really creates a problem.

[Interview with Femi Osofisan:]

OSOFISAN: When a very famous group from London for example, comes here to perform Macbeth, and then people compare it to the Macbeth done by the local people, they find the English one rather strange, very unacceptable.

PLASTOW: It’s most bizarre. People sit there and they kind of know that it’s a bit different and you get this strange mismatch. So I’ve often seen things that, say, the British Council, which takes Shakespeare towards around various parts of Africa... so you’ve got some people, who kind of know the European convention and try to do that, and then you’ve got some people who’ve got no knowledge and might be making kind of emotional responses to something. And the actors also find that quite difficult at times, because, obviously, they’re not ready for that kind of engaged audience. So it can be a very interesting experience.

BOGAEV: Well, that gives us a snapshot of modern-day Shakespeare in Africa, but we’re going to delve a little deeper into just how Shakespeare became indigenized in Africa. And to do that, we’re going to have to go back in time and talk about when and why the English were in Africa in the first place. And so, at the risk of asking you to do the impossible and betray every instinct you have as an academic, what is the short version of an answer to that question?

PLASTOW: Ah, well, it is a tale of evil colonialism. That’s what it’s all about. Or before that, it’s a tale of evil slavery. So.

BOGAEV: So we’re going to follow the money trail now.

PLASTOW: Yeah. Yeah. Of course, it’s all about money and capitalism and exploitation. So the British go into various parts of Africa at various times, but, of course, it starts with West Africa, and the evils of the transatlantic slave trade. But at that time, of course, you don’t get many settlers. You get a few missionaries going in.

BOGAEV: And we’re talking what century at this point?

PLASTOW: So the very first touchdowns are way back in the 16th century, but if you’re talking about substantial numbers of people going into Africa, setting up schools, which is where Shakespeare comes to, you’re talking about the first settlers into South Africa from England, the 1820s, but that’s very early. Most places you’re talking about the late 19th century, so from the 1870s onwards is a realistic timeframe.

BOGAEV: And just to clarify, the first settlers, they were European, specifically Portuguese explorers, right back to the 15th century.

PLASTOW: Yeah. The British went in South Africa in the 1820s. The Portuguese have been there since the 1650s, something like that.

BOGAEV: Right. And the Dutch and the Dutch East Indian Company had a…

PLASTOW: Yeah. Yeah.

BOGAEV: …their trade claim in South Africa.


BOGAEV: So England’s Africa involvement falls within the greater European trade history in the mid 19th century or early 19th century.

PLASTOW: That's right.

BOGAEV: And that’s when settlement begins. So is that when these countries started claiming territory and moving into the category of settler?

PLASTOW: Yeah. So in southern Africa, we’re talking from the 1820s onwards. In most of the rest of Africa, in West Africa, for example, you’re talking from the 1840s, but substantial numbers from the 1870s.

BOGAEV: And what caused the settlement, and how does it play into the history of the resources, gold and diamonds, that were discovered in South Africa. The rush…

PLASTOW: Okay, well, that’s why they want South Africa obviously. First of all, people have gone there just as a trade post. People were going around to India and, at that time, of course, there was no Suez Canal, so you’ve got to go around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of South Africa. So ships have to stop there for various reasons.

But then, you find gold, and that’s a very powerful motive. So you get a huge expansion in South Africa from the 1820s. Elsewhere, you had people going in, as I said, the first traders were engaged in the slave trade, but then, of course, you have the people who are trying to stop the slave trade. And that starts to bring missionaries into West Africa, specifically, from the mid-19th century. And the missionaries are often seen as the people who soften people up for colonialism.

I know you’ve interviewed my friend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for this, and he tells a lovely story about missionaries. He says that when the white man came, he told people to kneel down and shut their eyes and pray, and when they opened their eyes, they had the Bible, and the white man had their land.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] That is wonderful. That’s not one of the stories we have him telling us a little bit later in our conversation, but I wish we did. What he talks about, and now we are speaking with your friend, the African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and he’s a leading Kenyan playwright and novelist. He told us about going to school before independence in the 1950s and here, in fact, let’s play it. This is how he described it.

[Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:]

NGŨGĨ WA THIONG'O: In colonial Kenya, there were three types of schools. One was a colonial government school, the other was a colonial missionary school, and the other was actually schools run independently by African people.

BOGAEV: And then he went on to explain that what with these three kinds of schools, his education got a bit complicated. He went to elementary school, apparently, in an independent African school, but then the British banned the independent African schools, and so for high school, he attended this missionary school, where he was just immersed in Shakespeare student performances and also recitation.

[Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:]

NGŨGĨ: By the end of the four years, I had seen a performance of As You Like It in 1955, King Henry V in 1956, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1957, and King Lear. And at Alliance School, we had to recite some of Shakespeare’s poetry. I recall his 18th sonnet, with the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

In my memoir, I’ve related a story of one of the boys who claimed that he had used the poem and managed to win the heart on one of the girls from our neighboring school. So all of us went about, tried to recite the poem in different ways and posing different ways, you know, imagining our future conquest of girls’ hearts through his poetry. I never managed to conquer any, but I do still remember the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

PLASTOW: Okay, so this is a lovely story. I know many Africans, African politicians, for example, who quote Shakespeare all the time, because if they were a certain age, they learned reams of it off by heart. So it can be used for love, it can be used for politics, it can be used to show that you are a culturally sophisticated and powerful person. So he went to Alliance High School, which was the premier colonial boarding school.

So what happens is that the missionaries start small schools, because they need people to help them to convert people. They both translate the Bible into local languages, and they start to teach people English, so that it can go both ways. And they start to use little bits of drama to get their point across. So they start off with Bible stories and so on.

BOGAEV: Right. And both Ngũgĩ and Femi Osofisan said very similar things to what you’re talking about, and Femi told us that missionaries essentially tried to wipe out this indigenous African theater that had grown up.

[Interview with Femi Osofisan:]

OSOFISAN: Theater in our tradition is very much linked to religious practices, to festivals, religious festivals. The British colonial establishment depended very much on collaboration with the Christian missions. As far as they were concerned, these traditional festivals, which were performed with gods and so on, you know, were pagan, heathenish, and so they had to be banned.

PLASTOW: Yes, they did. The missionaries, of course, had a mission to convert everyone to Christianity, but you have to recognize at that time that colonialism is also predicated on the notion of "darkest Africa," of a bunch of savages. If your acknowledge that people have sophisticated, complex coaches of their own, then what’s your justification for colonizing them?

Gradually, as colonialism kind of follows on behind, what you’ve got is the state needing a small group of elite Africans in all the countries they colonized to be mediators between the peoples and also to become the carriers of this colonial culture. Because if you can indoctrinate people to think that their culture is inferior and your culture is superior, then you don’t need as many troops, do you? I've got your mind . And Ngũgĩ has written a very famous book called Decolonising the Mind, in which he talks about the "cultural bomb" and learning Shakespeare was part of the "cultural bomb."

[Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:]

NGŨGĨ: The colonial system of education tried to colonize the revolutionary Shakespeare. In the colonial system, which while thinking it was imposing Shakespeare, was actually putting Shakespeare in chains, Shakespeare was closer to our struggles in Kenya. But the colonial system of interpreting him and so on tried to tame that revolutionary implication of Shakespeare. Particularly, the fundamental struggle for power, and in all his plays, he’s able to show that power changes not through the pen, as I like to think myself, but actually through the sword. Because all his plays are full of blood, they have assassinations. And that bloodiness of Shakespeare, which was tamed by the way he was presented in the colonial classroom, the implications of that way of presenting Shakespeare and taming his revolutionary spirit, had the same result as saying, "Look, we produced a Shakespeare, you’ve never produced Shakespeare."

PLASTOW: In most of these colonial boarding schools, you weren’t allowed to talk your own language. So many stories I’ve heard of. At the beginning of a day, a child will be given a stone or some kind of token, and every time during the day, they heard one of their classmates speaking a local language, they gave it to them. And at the end of the day, the person who had the stone was roundly punished and often made to wear a dunce’s cap. So the whole project was predicated on eradicating a culture that publicly was not acknowledged even to exist. But, of course, they went home, didn’t they, in the holidays? And there they were surrounded by vibrant, meaningful, integrated cultures.

And so the first generation of African writers are usually turning their backs entirely on not the content, not the cultural riches, but the messages that colonialists have been trying to import. So you get this very syncretic theatre coming out just after independence, which is writing back, which is saying, "You tried to eradicate our culture. We’re showing you how rich our culture was, and you never managed to entirely suppress it. And here we are. We’re your leaders. We’re telling you that we’ve got a culture of our own."

BOGAEV: So an incredibly fertile time after independence, and you’re bringing up this issue of translation, which is such a fascinating story on the continent. And we reached out to another African scholar to talk about that. Dr. Tcho Caulker, he’s a Sierra Leonean-American professor in the English department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Today, the principal language of Sierra Leone is Krio.

Now before we hear from Dr. Caulker, I want to give our listeners a taste of Krio. It’s fantastic. This is a public service ad from 2015 and it’s debunking the common myths about Ebola.

[CLIP from 2015 public service advertisement about Ebola (Krio)]

BOGAEV: Now, it’s so clear when you listen to that, that Krio is like Spanglish. It’s a hybrid language and you can hear snatches of African languages, snatches of English, and all of that blended together. And the British didn’t consider Krio to be a real language. So when the country gained independence, Caulker says the desired breakaway from England wasn’t just about political independence. It went way farther than that.

[Interview with Tcho Caulker:]

TCHO CAULKER: Sierra Leone had been robbed of an identity by British colonialism and that, you know, they had this Anglophile identity thrust upon them, and language was an important part of that. with that breaking away from the British Empire, the elites in the country really, really had a desire to have Krio take a place of prominence. There really was this push. It’s for the nation to really assert itself linguistically.

BOGAEV: And Tcho Caulker goes on to explain that a playwright named Thomas Decker, who was also head of the Ministry of Information, decided because of this that he would translate Julius Caesar into Krio, and here’s how Decker dealt with the phrase "Beware the ides of March," in the soothsayer scene.

[Interview with Tcho Caulker:]

CAULKER: Decker translates that as "Oskiney tik tem Mach medu mont," and this actually means more than "Beware," or it carries a stronger connotation. When a mother or a parent says "Tik tem," that parent is essentially telling that child to stop, consider what you’re doing, you are headed towards danger.

PLASTOW: Well, this is very interesting that the most commonly produced Shakespeare play I know of anywhere in Africa is Julius Caesar, so that speaks to the power politics that Africans very quickly found in Shakespeare. It was, yeah, it was used in all sorts of ways, so Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, for example, one of his projects was to introduce Kiswahili as the language of Tanzania, which he did very successfully, in order not to privilege anyone local language over the other, but also to get rid of the colonial implications of English. So one of the things he does to prove how sophisticated Kiswahili is, is he translates Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice into Kiswahili while he is president.

BOGAEV: He burnt the midnight oil.

PLASTOW: Yeah. He was an extraordinary, sophisticated man. So that’s one end. And then you get a whole lot of people beginning to adapt. So that was a direct translation. What you get elsewhere is increasingly radical adaptations of Shakespeare, so taking the meat of the message in a very Shakespearean way; of course, Shakespeare took stories from other people and then adapted them.

So you take the story of Julius Caesar, you Africanize it. You give people African names, you put African dance in. You can’t have theater in Africa without music and dances, that's just a travesty. So you Africanize its form, you Africanize its name, and to varying degrees ,you radically change the structure of the piece as well.

BOGAEV: So while playwrights were expressing their literary independence by freely translating Shakespeare, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o told us that in Kenya, there was a push to take the focus off of English writers, and make sure that students got equal access to African writers.

[Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:]

NGŨGĨ: In Kenya, there was actually a struggle for the soul of Shakespeare. To either the colonial Shakespeare, continued into the post-colonial era, or a liberated Shakespeare, whose spirit would walk with a new Kenya.

I and a few others were the first call for the abolition of the English department and its reorganization as a literary department. Although we had not banned Shakespeare, we just argued for the centrality of African literature. We were actually accused by the Kenyan government, post-colonial Kenyan government, of trying to ban Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Okay. So this reclaiming of Shakespeare didn’t stop there, right, Jane? What other forms did these expressions of literary independence take?

PLASTOW: Okay. So you find, post the 1970s, which is when Ngũgĩ is talking about a certain "centrality of African literature" at Nairobi University, this was a hugely controversial act at the time. Many of the reactions have been to really take Shakespeare away from any kind of notion that you have to reproduce a literal translation or that you have to literally reproduce the action. So Shakespeare’s increasingly taken as a storyteller, as a starting point from which you then write into your own language.

So Dev Virahsawmy in Mauritius is one of the most famous "tradaptators," he calls himself, of Shakespeare, with his Toufann, which is an adaptation of The Tempest. So again, we’re talking about valorizing the local language, but we’re also talking about using the politics of Shakespeare to massively critique, in this case, the right of the magician, the Prospero figure, to control the people. So it’s often been reviewed in terms of reclaiming identity, of challenging this Western notion of the all-knowing white wizard, and putting Caliban and the witch at the center, and they know, these are the actual people who know this culture.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s so fascinating. And now to bring this conversation full circle and back to the present day, Tcho Caulker and Femi Osofisan gave me the impression that it’s getting tougher and tougher to find Shakespeare in the schools in Africa. despite this rich history during the independence and afterwards. And this is what Tcho Caulker said about his last trip back to Sierra Leone.

[Interview with Tcho Caulker:]

CAULKER: The move really has been towards stepping away from those colonial classics and really focusing on 20th century literature, and particularly the literature of Africa. We would be more likely to see in these classrooms an author like Chinua Achebe, in place of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

BOGAEV: And Femi agreed.

[Interview with Femi Osofisan:]

OSOFISAN: If you look at the syllabus of schools now, you find it very hard to see Shakespeare there. We love them, we still love Shakespeare, and you find many of our rulers quote Shakespeare, but I’m afraid many of the younger generation wouldn’t even know who you are quoting if you quote, if you saw all the quotations.

BOGAEV: So, Jane, is Shakespeare still part of most schools’ curriculum, at all?

PLASTOW: Well, there are 54 countries in Africa, so there are 54 different responses. And, of course, only half of them are Anglophone, anyway. But I was in Malawi a few months ago. Every Malawian student has to study a Shakespeare play. Similarly, in Uganda, you would have to do that. In Ethiopia, there are many translations of Shakespeare and he’s widely studied in school, but in the local language, in Amharic. So it’s a really varied picture.

But I would certainly say, talking to students, Shakespeare really lives in Africa when it’s translated into African vernacular languages and African performance forms. When it’s got to be started on the page as straight British Shakespeare, it has precious little meaning to students. So I think the future for Shakespeare is to allow himself to play with the glories of the rich performance traditions and languages of Africa.

BOGAEV: Well, I completely take to heart your warning that it’s impossible to generalize anything about Africa. But how common are Shakespeare performances there these days, because Femi also said that it’s almost impossible to find live theater in Africa anymore.

PLASTOW: Well, again, he’s talking about Nigeria. It depends where you are. There are relatively few performances of Shakespeare. I’d say, interestingly, there is more interest in adapting and translating Greek classics, for example. I think the mythical structure works very well for a lot of people there.

BOGAEV: Why do you think that is? It’s more akin to indigenous storytelling forms?

PLASTOW: Yes, I think a lot of the myths about destiny and great characters and the kind of strong central narrative of the plays doesn’t seem to play into any one country, you know, if you look at the history plays, which I know Ngugi talked about studying, that’s very far away for a modern African young person.


PLASTOW: Which is why I think you get your Romeo and Juliet, your Macbeth, your Tempest, your Julius Caesar coming round and round again, everywhere I go. So they’re not put on hugely often, but, for example, a few years ago, when I was in Ethiopia, where I work a lot, a run of Othello had run for three years.

BOGAEV: Well, I think what Femi was picking up on were some of the safety issues around live theatre, also funding, and also the influence of film and video culture in Africa.

PLASTOW: Okay, so Nigeria has the problem of security. That’s certainly not the case in many other African countries.

Film is the huge problem. Cheap video films can be made and consumed by the thousand and there are small video halls, not proper cinemas, but small shacks, sometimes, where you can go watch a film for a few cents. And this has really threatened theater.

Interestingly, Kenya, where Ngũgĩ came from, which came from a very low level, because the government really suppressed it after his own work, which was seen as very subversive, is just having a major revamp of its National Theatre and is beginning again to revamp theater departments in universities.

But no, Shakespeare will only survive as long as people are allowed to play with it. And I think it all becomes increasingly difficult for Western tours of Shakespeare to go to Africa. So the Globe has recently taken Hamlet round every country in the world, but I was in Africa after a couple of those performances. And whilst people were hugely admiring of the virtuosity of the actors, it was seen as a very elite, distant experience, as opposed to the vibrancy, which you saw in some of the Globe shows, where Africans brought Shakespeare back to England.

So I think if England wants to, and places like the Royal Shakespeare and the Globe want to engage with Africa over Shakespeare, they need to do some learning from Africa, not the other way around.

BOGAEV: I think that’s a great place to end, as much as I would rather keep talking. Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you today.

PLASTOW: It’s a pleasure to contribute. Thank you, goodbye.


WITMORE: Jane Plastow is professor of African theater at the University of Leeds and co-editor of African Theatre 12: Shakespeare in and out of Africa. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. We also heard from Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan, from the renowned Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and also Tcho Caulker, a Sierra Leonean-American professor in the English Department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

"I Speak of Africa" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had a lot of help pulling this podcast together. Our thanks first to Caleen Sinnette Jennings and David Schalkwyk, who helped us in tracking down voices for this presentation, and to Barbara Caldwell at UC-Irvine. We had help with the recording from Gareth Dant at the University of Leeds, independent producer George Lavender, Ray Andrewson at WQUN radio in Hamden, Connecticut, and Babatunde Ugunbajo at Midas Touch Studios in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.